ALONG THE COBBLESTONE STREETS of Paris, vendors pour wide disks of crêpe batter on sizzling hot grills. In Ho Chi Minh City, cone-hatted women carry steaming hot dumplings in buckets balanced on a yoke, and men on bicycles sell dried cuttlefish, hanging it from racks so it dangles in the wind as they ride. But scan the sidewalks of downtown Minneapolis for street food, and you’ll be lucky to shake down a tube steak.
In a city of nearly 400,000 people, there are just five licensed sidewalk cart vendors, and they’re restricted to the downtown zone. The number has waned over the years, for a few not-so-surprising reasons: weather, skyways, and restaurant owners afraid of the competition. Such barriers haven’t dissuaded Sung Yu, a small, graying Korean American man who has been selling hot dogs at Eighth and Nicollet every warm-weather weekday since 1992 (Yu’s wife runs a similar cart one block north of his location). “It looks very simple, but it’s a lot of work,” he says, referring to chopping the condiments, pushing the bulky cart from its storage facility, and enduring 100-degree weather. Yu says his customers include judges, homeless people, hotel chefs, and an office assistant named Anita who introduces herself as Yu’s “best customer.” As the Thursday Farmers’ Market crowds pass by, Anita eats her $2 dog standing up, backed against the Hubert White window displays.
It doesn’t look too comfortable, especially with precariously piled sauerkraut and relish about to topple off. But Nicollet Mall offers little in the way of designated public seating. The shortage of benches and shade trees irks Steve Berg, Star Tribune editorial writer and advocate for vibrant urban life. Berg complains that downtown streets were built for cars, not people, and that the city was designed for use eight hours a day, five days a week, instead of 24/7. “The street food thing is a symptom of something far larger,” he says. “The market is there, but the city and its public works and planning departments have not delivered attractive public spaces where people can mingle—and eat.”
Minneapolis City Council member Gary Schiff says he envisions such a gathering space at the south Minneapolis Midtown Public Market, and he worked to liberalize restrictive city codes so hot tamales and fajitas could be offered for sale. (Sidewalk carts, on the other hand, are currently limited to selling packaged foods, precooked sausages, hand-dipped ice cream, hot and cold beverages, and “non-potentially hazardous” veggie sandwiches. The city is open to expanding the list, but currently there are no applications from potential vendors who want to serve other foods.) “I’ve noticed from going to other cities that some of the best food you can get is available from street vendors,” Schiff says. And he’d like to see vendors on Lake Street after its renovation is completed. “They bring more activity and eyes on the street,” he says. “Legitimate commerce can help neighborhoods with problems with illegitimate commerce.”
Schiff is sympathetic to the concerns of rent-paying restaurateurs. “They don’t want somebody selling the same thing for two dollars less,” he says. But downtown, at least, sidewalk carts don’t seem to compete with business lunches at Zelo and tend to draw the same patrons who frequent already-packed fast-food chains such as Chipotle and Jimmy John’s.
Perhaps one day our city sidewalks will bustle with taco trucks and pad thai stands, with pasties and samosas: quick, culinary delights that will inspire brown baggers to put down their PBJs and take to the streets. (Though Yu believes he would not have as many customers if he sold Korean food instead of hot dogs, nor does he offer kimchi as a condiment.) For now, you might say, it’s a doggone shame.